Republican lawmakers have been doggedly focused on Planned Parenthood for months, hoping to catch the national women’s health organization breaking laws related to fetal tissue donation. This crusade has taken a particularly aggressive turn in Missouri — where state senators are threatening to throw the head of St. Louis’ Planned Parenthood affiliate in jail.
The senators are trying to hold the Planned Parenthood employee in contempt of court — because the clinic has refused turn over a broad swath of private medical documents, which the organization says would have violated federal privacy laws.
The contempt charge is related to a November subpoena issued to Mary Kogut, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, by the interim Missouri State Senate Committee on the Sanctity of Life. The committee was convened to investigate allegations that the women’s health organization illegally sells fetal remains, made by the Center for Medical Progress’ widely-debunked sting videos.
Among the requested documents are all consent forms signed by patients as part of receiving abortion care or prior to being administered anesthesia since 2010. As the clinic is the only remaining abortion provider in the state, this would effectively give lawmakers the names of the bulk of the women in Missouri who’ve received abortions in recent years, other than a small number of procedures performed at hospitals. Crucially, the committee’s document request makes no specifications about what would happen with the information after it is turned over, so there is no guarantee that the information could not be turned over to the public.
Planned Parenthood’s lawyers contend that the committee lacks the authority to subpoena the documents — many of which contain information protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) — and that turning them would be a breach of doctor-patient confidentiality and federal privacy laws.
Notwithstanding these legal objections, yesterday, the committee, led by State Senator Kurt Schaefer, began hearings on two bills to hold Kogut in contempt for not turning over the documents. If charged, Kogut could face 10 days of jail time as well as a $300 fine. The last time contempt proceedings were initiated in Missouri was in 1903.
Missouri’s Attorney General has already cleared the St. Louis Planned Parenthood clinic of wrongdoing after an extensive investigation.
“We can’t continue to pretend like these attacks are theoretical or merely rhetorical. Politicians in Missouri and across the country are threatening to take us back to the days where reproductive health providers were jailed for providing abortion — and it’s women who pay the price,” said Cecile Richards, President of Planned Parenthood, in response to the proceedings.
Despite numerous state and federal investigations, lawmakers and investigators have repeatedly failed to come up with any evidence of wrongdoing on Planned Parenthood’s part, and scientists say the political firestorm impacts their ability to conduct vital medical research that has “saved the lives and health of millions.”
Missouri lawmakers, in particular, have been aggressively focused on going after legal abortion broadly and Planned Parenthood specifically. The state already has extremely harsh restrictions surrounding abortion care, and this session, lawmakers are redoubling their efforts. They’re expected to vote soon on defunding Planned Parenthood as a Medicaid and Title X provider — measures that would, among other cuts, restrict preventative care to about 7,000 low income patients. And Schaefer, the same person going after Kogut now, has also previously targeted a student conducting academic research on abortion.
Nationally, the attack on Kogut is part of the web of attacks on Planned Parenthood. GOP frontrunner Donald Trump recently drew ire from both sides of the debate for saying that women should be “punished” for having abortions. He swiftly walked back his remarks to say that instead, doctors and other abortion providers should be punished at the discretion of the states, a sentiment echoed by GOP contenders John Kasich and Ted Cruz. And at a federal level, the House Committee on Infant Lives has also issued broad subpoenas, asking for the names of medical researchers, graduate students, laboratory technicians, and administrative staff involved in fetal tissue research.
The Missouri committee is expected to vote on the resolutions to charge Kogut with contempt on Thursday.
On Thursday, the Missouri Senate committee voted 5–2 in favor of holding Mary Kogut, regional Planned Parenthood affiliate, in contempt.
The proposal will now advance to the Missouri Senate floor, where it will likely be voted on next week. If the resolution passes, Kogut could face a fine and 10 days in jail.